COVID-19 Speeds Robotic Delivery Improvements

Delivery robots ease quarantine challenges in the U.K.

May 21, 2020

MILTON KEYNES, U.K.—Two years ago—before anyone had heard of COVID-19—a start-up called Starship Technologies deployed a fleet of rolling delivery robots in Milton Keynes (pop. 270,000), a city about 50 miles northwest of London.

As the New York Times reports, the short, six-wheeled robots ferried groceries and dinners to homes and offices. Then, when the pandemic hit, Starship shifted the fleet even further into grocery deliveries.

Milton Keynes resident Emma Maslin now buys from the corner store, minus human contact. “There’s no social interaction with a robot,” she said.

The proven convenience of the robots’ pandemic performance hints at what the machines could one day accomplish. Milton Keynes, with a vast network of bicycle paths, is perfectly suited to rolling robots. Demand for their services has grown, and some residents have spent days trying to schedule a delivery.

Robotic technology is rapidly improving and can help with deliveries, transportation, recycling and manufacturing. But there are still technical and logistical hurdles. For example, the robots in Milton Keynes can carry no more than two bags of groceries.

A pandemic may increase demand but does not change what you can deploy, said Elliot Katz of Phantom Auto, a start-up that helps companies remotely control autonomous vehicles when they encounter situations they can’t navigate on their own. “There is a limit to what a delivery bot can bring to a human,” he said. “But you have to start somewhere.”

Founded in 2014, Starship Technologies of San Francisco has deployed most of its robots on U.S. college campuses, including George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and Northern Arizona University’s Flagstaff campus. Equipped with cameras, radar and sensors, the robots navigate by matching their surroundings to digital maps built by the company in each new location.

Shoppers arrange for deliveries through a smartphone app. They typically pay a British pound (about $1.20) for each delivery, but in Milton Keynes, Starship has raised the price to as much as £2 during the busiest times to encourage people to shop in off hours.

Though this may be the most extensive deployment of delivery robots in the world, others have popped up recently. In Christiansburg, Virginia, Paul and Susie Sensmeier arrange drugstore and bakery deliveries via flying drone. Wing, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, began offering drone deliveries in the area last fall.

The Sensmeiers can order penne pasta, marinara sauce and toilet paper. But they can’t order prescription medicines via Wing. The drones are stocked at a Wing warehouse, not at a drugstore, and like the robots in Milton Keynes, the drones can carry only so much.

There are other limitations too, including the fact that sidewalk robots and flying drones require human help. Starship and similar companies must monitor the progress of each robot from afar, and if anything goes wrong, remote operators take over. With social distancing, that has become more difficult. Remote operators who once worked in call centers have moved into their homes.

Katz’s company, Phantom Auto, is helping companies make the transition. “This is a very, very difficult problem to solve,” Katz said. “We are in the autonomy-doesn’t-quite-work-yet business.”

Still, companies like Wing and Starship hope they can expand their services and refine their skills. Starship recently started a service in Chevy Chase, Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C.

Coronavirus Resources

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